My ICCN community recently read together, “The Fire in These Ashes,” by Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB. Although it was published in 1995, the message still rings true. Only two pages into the book, I started to feel re-energized in my discernment journey. What spoke to me most is her focus on the purpose of religious life. She writes, “Religious life was never meant simply to be a labor force in the church; it was meant to be a searing presence, a paradigm of search, a mark of human soul and a catalyst to conscience in the society in which it emerged” (p. 2).
Truthfully, some days I find myself discouraged about the future of religious life. What I have witnessed of religious life will soon no longer be, and while I feel hopeful about the possibilities, the inability to see what is on the horizon makes it easy to lose hope. But after reading this book, I remembered: I was not initially drawn to religious life simply because of the ministry of the sisters; what I was, and am, drawn to more is how sisters are in ministry and in the world. It is the “searing presence” that Joan Chittister, OSB speaks of. If I focus simply on how we have done ministry in religious life in the recent past, there is plenty of reason to question the future. But when I remember the importance of who we are and the presence we bring to the world, I remember why I felt, and continue to feel, called here in the first place.
Much of this came into focus for me a few weeks ago when we took a community trip to the Abbey of Gethsemani. We novices were finding joy in the simplest things, such as taking pictures on an electric scooter and joking with one another. In these moments, I felt pure joy exuding from the community we have built – a joy that others notice. One sister commented that our joy was contagious. Our tour guide at the bourbon distillery asked where we were from because of the diversity and connection between our group. And when three of us attended Zumba on my birthday, others in the class were feeding off of our energy and joy.
As women religious, our mission is about more than just being joyful, but these experiences reminded me of the impact that our presence alone can have on the world. The past seven months of novitiate have continuously reminded me of the importance of becoming who God is calling me to be – through personal and spiritual growth, along with committing to intentional community – because those alone are a gift to the world, even before we step into ministry. We live a radical lifestyle that gives the world much to be challenged by and to ponder.
If we focus simply on ministry, we will believe religious life is dying. However, if we remember the many founders/foundresses who started with only a few people, we will remember that the Spirit can, and often does, work through small groups of people in mysterious ways. I truly believe God is continuing to call people to religious life and that we will be a “searing presence,” prophetic in the ways that our Church and world need us to be today. I pray that we may all continue to trust in the work of the Spirit, especially on the days when we cannot see or imagine what is on the horizon.
Sr. Rachel Dunlap, Sisters of the Presentation, Dubuque